By Susan Dibble
Ask Jane Hodgkinson what inspired her to spend the past 30 years creating recreational opportunities for people with special needs and she'll tell you it's the stories she hears.
The recently retired executive director of the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association recalls one mother whose daughter had lost her leg to bone cancer.
The mom said medical personnel kept telling her daughter what she wouldn't be able to do, but special recreation people told her daughter what she could do. The girl went on to travel the world to compete in paralympics and win a scholarship at the University of Illinois.
"I could tell you 100 stories," Hodgkinson said. "We feel like we make a difference in people's lives."
No one who knows Hodgkinson or the agency she led for the past three decades would disagree.
Betty Olson's two sons, Rich and Ted, now 54 and 49, have participated in WDSRA programs since the agency started 35 years ago. As the numbers of programs grew under Hodgkinson's leadership, her sons added activities to their lives.
"For our kids, it's been a source of independence, social life and friends," Olson said. "We think a lot of her (Hodgkinson) as a person because she's been interested in the kids, and not just ours."
When Hodgkinson joined Carol Stream-based WDSRA as its executive director in 1981, the agency was just five years old, had five full-time staff members and offered a handful of programs that served 240 to 250 participants a year.
WDSRA now offers 14,000 to 15,000 different activities, camps, trips and sports annually to 4,500 to 5,000 children and adults with physical and mental special needs in Wheaton, Glen Ellyn, Bloomingdale, Carol Stream, Naperville, Roselle, Warrenville, West Chicago and Winfield.
The agency also provides inclusion services to enable those with special needs to participate in regular park district programs.
Gail Bettcher, WDSRA's human resources manager for 13 years and a friend of Hodgkinson, said the growth can largely be attributed to Hodgkinson and her openness to ideas offered by others.
"She's always pushing us to try something new," Bettcher said. "What makes Jane unique as an individual is her love for life. It's about looking for the humor and laughter and the things that make your life better than just getting by."
Make learning fun
A native of the Mississippi River city of Alton, Hodgkinson knew in high school that she wanted to work with people with special needs. But if she had listened to her father at age 18, she might never have met the man who inspired her view of what special recreation could be.
Her dad wanted her to attend an Ivy League college just as he had. Like any self-respecting teenager, Hodgkinson chose instead to follow a boyfriend to Southern Illinois University, where she promptly broke up with him.
She thought she would major in education, but didn't find the courses stimulating because of their emphasis on rote learning for special needs students.
Then she took a class with Bill Freeberg, a professor in the university's recreation department who had devoted himself to researching how to provide learning opportunities for special education students through recreational experiences. Learning should be fun, Freeberg taught.
"It was such a practical approach to learning and having people retain things because they were based on positive memories," Hodgkinson said. "We all loved him. He served as a great mentor and role model for us."
A consultant to the Kennedy Foundation, Freeberg planted the seeds that grew into Special Olympics. Hodgkinson, who served as Freeberg's teaching assistant while she worked on her master's degree, ran the Southern Illinois Special Olympics and sat on the first board of Illinois Special Olympics.
But Hodgkinson still thought her future would be working in institutional settings, because that is where many people with special needs ended up. After earning her master's, she spent five years working in a mental institution. By then, legislation passed by former Illinois Sen. (later Congressman) Harris Fawell of Naperville allowed special recreation districts to form and created a new career path.
Hodgkinson moved to the Wheaton area in 1981 to take over leadership of WDSRA. She took risks, implementing programs that hadn't been tried before.
During the first 10-day trip to Yellowstone National Park, developmentally disabled participants went horseback riding, white-water rafting and mountain climbing. They had a great time in what was an eye-opening experience, Hodgkinson said.
"There were people who had 40-year-old children who had never been away from their parents," she said. "I really began to appreciate the respite value to families."
Moving away from a philosophy of having all staff-run programs, Hodgkinson reached out to area service clubs for volunteers that allowed WDSRA to multiply its activities. Special Olympics was one. No DuPage agency was offering them in 1981, even though Special Olympics had started 13 years earlier.
"Now we have 25 Special Olympics sports," Hodgkinson said. "I think we sponsor more Special Olympics athletes than any agency outside of the Chicago school district."
WDSRA worked with schools to provide a summer school/recreational program for special needs students that kept them from regressing over the break and offered sports programs as an incentive for at-risk youth to stay out of trouble.
For its efforts, WDSRA was named the best special recreation association in the country in 1982 and 1993.
But Hodgkinson's commitment to those with disabilities has gone far beyond providing recreational programs, said Cindi Swanson of Naperville, a special needs advocate, WDSRA parent and now part-time employee of the agency. Swanson is blind and her son, Adam, 24, who has Down syndrome, has participated in WDSRA programs since he was 12.
"She saw people with disabilities as a whole person," Swanson said.
Hodgkinson served on the Special Education Parents Alliance board to create more employment opportunities for those with disabilities.
"She understands the dignity of work and that people with disabilities need the opportunity to work," Swanson said.
Hodgkinson also served for years on DuPage County's paratransit committee, which worked with Pace, municipalities and townships to start the Ride DuPage program to provide more transportation opportunities for people with disabilities. Residents in communities that sponsor Ride DuPage are able to book trips without geographic restrictions on where they can go.
As WDSRA's executive director, Hodgkinson also worked with member park districts to improve the accessibility of their facilities.
"Physical access has been pretty important to me," Hodgkinson said. "Part of my job has been to help them see the error of their ways."
Sandy Gbur, who started June 6 as WDSRA's new executive director, said she was able to see the secret of Hodgkinson's effectiveness in the weeks she worked with her before Hodgkinson officially retired on June 30.
Hodgkinson took Gbur, who previously served as executive director of West Suburban Special Recreation Association in Cook County, to all WDSRA's member park districts to meet staff and tour their facilities.
"She is a master networker and relationship builder," Gbur said. "It really became apparent to me why she was so successful here."
Swanson said Hodgkinson's willingness to reach out extends to everyone.
"Jane will have lunch with a state senator or she'll have lunch with one of her consumers," she said.
Olson recalled that when her younger son was struggling with depression, Hodgkinson would meet with him a few times a year over pie or lunch to encourage him.
"We felt she went out of her way to do it," she said. "He sort of considered her a special friend."
Wheaton resident Tom Corrigan, whose daughter, Claire, now 21, has been involved in WDSRA programs since she was 5, said his daughter's life would be much less fun without WDSRA.
"She (Hodgkinson) built this organization and has the respect of park districts, all the civic leaders of the communities and parents," he said. "WDSRA is a tremendous, valuable resource to the community."
Special needs families surveyed by the city of Naperville last year named WDSRA as their No. 1 asset. The programs WDSRA provides continue to be vital when special needs children move into adulthood and fewer services are available to them, Hodgkinson said.
"The parents have told us over and over, we're a lifetime service for their children," she said.
After 30 years at WDSRA's helm, Hodgkinson said she still sees more special populations the agency could reach -- such as children with mental illness, family members of people with autism, and dialysis patients who are tethered to their need for treatment.
The economy and the need for facilities are challenges, but challenges are nothing new to Hodgkinson.
"I feel like this has always been the type of agency that figured out challenges and overcame them," she said.
Hodgkinson will serve on the WDSRA Foundation board to raise money for its services as well as on the foundation boards of some of its member park districts. The married mother of two adult sons, Hodgkinson stepped into a new role as president of Carol Stream Rotary on the first official day of her retirement.
She's already gone through her orientation for The Saints group that passes out programs at musicals and plays in the Chicago area.
"I love going to plays and musicals. I'm a big drama and movie fan," she said.
A member of the League of Women Voters in Wheaton, Hodgkinson also hopes to golf more, play cards and garden. She'll still be around, and that's a comfort to former colleagues like Swanson.
"I hope we don't miss her. I hope she'll still be active," Swanson said. "There's nobody like her."